[AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS]Among the continental championships, the Africa Cup of Nations ranks up there, just behind the European Championship and Copa America for international attention. The presence of international superstars like Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba helps. But the competition's reputation for the unpredictable and bizarre doesn't hurt. Unpredictable? Former champions Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria did not make the cut, but co-host Equatorial Guinea, Niger and Botswana, none of whom has made the finals, are in the final 16. Bizarre? The Chipolopolo, Zambia's national team, arrived in the port city of Bata, one of the two Equatorial Guinea venues, to complain that its official hotel was "below standard." How bad? As in there was no water. After the second night, the Chipolopolo left to find its own quarters, which it will pay for on its own ...
THE FAVORITES.Three-time defending champion Egypt didn't qualify, meaning a new champion will be crowned. With Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa also out, that leaves Ghana, the 2010 runner-up, and star-studded Ivory Coast as the favorites.
Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew and John Mensah return from the team that knocked the USA out of the 2010 World Cup in the second round. Goran Stevanovic replaced fellow Serbian Milovan Rajevac, who led the Black Stars to second place at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations and the quarterfinals at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Ivory Coast easily has the most talent of any team in the tournament with Drogba, brothers Yaya and Kolo Toure of Manchester City, Gervinho of Arsenal. Equally influential will be Ismael Cheik Tiote(Newcastle United) and Seydou Doumbia (CSKA Moscow).
This could be the last chance for the current generation of Elephants to win the title. The closest Drogba and Company have come was second place behind Egypt in 2008.
THE OUTSIDERS. Besides Ghana and Ivory Coast, the only quarterfinals two years ago that are in this year's tournament are Angola and Zambia, neither of whom would be considered title contenders.
Senegal looks like the best of the outsiders. The Lions of Teranga feature French-born Demba Ba, who has been excellent this season for Newcastle United in the English Premier League, Moussa Sow, top scorer in France's Ligue 1 last season for champion Lille with 25 goals, and veteran defender Souleymane Diawara of Marseille. Former Red Bulls goalie Bouna Coundoul says his goal is the become the best keeper in Africa.
Another Lions team -- Morocco's Lions of Atlas -- are on the comeback trail under respected Belgian coach Eric Gerets. Midfielder Oussama Assaidi of Dutch club Heerenveen is being tipped as one of the tournament's young sensations.
Of the teams who have previously won an African title, Tunisia's Eagles of Carthage are the most recent champions, having won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004. Tunisia also won the 2011 African Nations Championship for domestic-based players, and Tunisian club Esperance is the reigning African Champions League champion.
THE CO-HOSTS.Of the co-hosts, Gabon is the stronger team. Its appearance in the final two years ago was its fourth. Like many of the smaller African teams, the Panthers must look to Europe for players. Forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang grew up playing for AC Milan's youth team and first represented France, where he was born, at the under-21 level before switching to Gabon, which is father captained and for which two brothers have also been capped.
Equatorial Guinea is a team of imports, players with loose ties to the oil-rich nation who have been naturalized. It is given little chance in its first appearance at the finals, not least because it switched coaches only two weeks ago. Former French national team coach Henri Michel quit after coming of governmental interference and was replaced by Brazilian Gilson Paulo.
THE NEWCOMERS.Besides Equatorial Guinea, Niger and Botswana are making their first appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Given little chance of advancing in a group with Gabon, Morocco and Tunisia, Niger owed its qualification look to the ignorance of South Africa, which didn't know the tournament's tiebreaker rules in qualifying and thought its tie in its final qualifying match was good enough to send it through to the finals when in fact Niger won the tiebreaker in a three-way with the Bafana Bafana and Sierra Leone.
Botswana will be captained by a name from the past, 33-year-old Dipsy Selolwane, who played college ball at NAIA Harris-Stowe and Saint Louis University and in MLS with the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake and now plays for SuperSuper United, his fourth club in eight seasons in South Africa.